Colorado’s first mental-health commissioner must be more than a symbolic hire

In an ideal world, every state in America would have a dedicated leader focused on mental health.

Dr.. Benjamin F. Miller

Unfortunately, this often amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking. In the eyes of state leaders, such a role is too unfamiliar, or too much to ask for. Sure, we have people who oversee mental health programs in the states — which usually focus on Medicaid — but we don’t usually see those people in positions of authority.

However, back in April, Colorado began working hard to turn wishful thinking into reality. In October, that work was taken one step further, when Colorado announced the opening of the all-new Behavioral Health Department commissioner role.

It is worth taking a moment to note how important this development is. Under Colorado’s new Behavioral Health Department, a scattered pool of resources and stakeholders will be brought together under one roof to coordinate and integrate efforts more effectively to deliver affordable services to those who need them. This is a unique development.

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Most importantly, the Department of Behavioral Health will have a seat at Governor Jared Polis’ table. for the first time Start, a mental health professional – the BHA commissioner – will have a position in the Cabinet, with the express purpose of guiding better mental health policy in the state. Not only does this development mean that Colorado is symbolically elevating the importance of mental health in the state (which is a mental health victory in itself); It also means that mental health and addiction concerns will be actively addressed across a range of policy issues.

From housing policy, to COVID responses in schools, to poverty and access to health care, to use of federal resources, forms of mental health are shaped by nearly every type of public initiative. With the appointment of the Commissioner for the Department of Behavioral Health in Cabinet, the likelihood of integrating mental health needs into less traditional policy avenues is greatly improved.

This presents an opportunity for big and small wins across the policy spectrum. Mental health may be better integrated across the state rather than just another isolated program that distributes dollars to struggling systems and structures.

However, establishing the administration does not guarantee improvements in mental health policy. Colorado has a huge opportunity to overhaul mental health — not just how state and federal dollars are spent on care, but how oversight is conducted and mental health policy is formulated and implemented.

But it is an opportunity that can easily be squandered. Without strong leadership – leadership with vision and courage to challenge the status quo – we would have a great position, but no meaningful results.

Mental health policy is complex and often frustrating, which means there is a huge opportunity Not To move the needle as it is to do so. Leaders must be vigilant against such an outcome. Despite strong evidence and decades of data showing that people are not getting the mental health care they need, we continue to build programs using outdated and ineffective policies. This means that our new commissioner will be in the field of changing culture as much as he will be in the work of health policy.

Now, there is plenty of indication that Colorado will end up with a commissioner taking an active and assertive role in policy development, so that mental health considerations remain high in mind. Perhaps the fact that this office was established is the most important of those signs. But sometimes, a little encouragement is necessary.

Those who end up in this role should be encouraged by the fact that a clear path is being laid for dynamic and purposeful change. The creation of the Behavioral Health Department is a roadmap for a path of change, both in Colorado and across the United States, and the future commissioner must feel empowered to anchor himself or herself in significant structural reform.

Colorado has no shortage of mental health challenges, from a youth mental health crisis to reports that the state ranks as the worst in the nation for adult mental health care. A pessimist may view this data in desperation, but we should all encourage Colorado to take direct action to address these problems.

By creating the Behavioral Health Department, Colorado gave the rest of the country a model to follow, and began to chart a clear path out of the quagmire of its own mental health challenges. This is a huge opportunity, and we should all hope Colorado takes full advantage of it.


Dr. Benjamin F. Miller, from Denver, is president good confidence Chairman of the advisory board of inseparable, two of the nation’s leading mental health organizations.


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